A Toast To Olde Tymes – Helen Findlay
Nature or nurture? Sometimes, by a happy coincidence, a person ends up exactly where she should be. That happened when Helen Findlay went into the family business. Her paternal grandfather, William Wadsworth Findlay, began his career as an art dealer in Kansas City in 1870. One of his most prominent clients was William Rockhill Nelson. As for the artists he represented: in 1991, when a long-neglected landscape was cleaned and discovered to be the work of George Caleb Bingham, its frame still bore the inscription “W.W. Findlay Gallery of Art, Corner of Main & 7th Sts. Kansas City, Mo.” Helen’s father, Walstein Chester Findlay, succeeded his father as head of the business. A number of French paintings now in the collection of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art were acquired from the Findlay Galleries during Walstein’s tenure.
Walstein was married to Tryphosa Brown, who was known as Tryphie. In addition to Helen, the Findlays were the parents of Walstein Chester Findlay, Jr., who was called Wally; William A. Findlay, and David Beals Findlay, who was named for Tryphie’s grandfather, a Kansas City banker.
Helen was not the first woman in her family to go to college. Her mother was a graduate of Elmira College and had attended Drury College and the Pratt Institute. At Vassar College, Helen studied French and German. After her graduation in 1930, she spent the summer abroad. Helen traveled by airplane whenever possible, and was unfazed by a forced landing: it gave her the opportunity to spend the night in a mountain town. Excerpts of her accounts of the journey were published in the newspaper.
From the Kansas City Star, September 14, 1930:
“Miss Helen Findlay, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. W.C. Findlay, visited many foreign countries this summer – Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Italy, Switzerland, France and England, but Russia is the land which most appealed to her imagination.
“‘Russia is one of the greatest enigmas,’ she wrote. ‘The past and the present are in conflict, and there’s no speculation as to the future. After spending several days in Vienna, Prague, Budapest or Paris a traveler carries away a definite impression of the city and the people represented in it. In Russia it is just the opposite…
‘The government has held intact museums for the people, the famous Hermitage gallery in Leningrad and the Moscow Gallery of Western Art… Factory folks and school children crowd these museums daily. The magnificent French baroque palace at Peterhof and others are open. It’s a typical sight to see a dozen or more peasants from the country following their guide through the sumptuous apartment of Catherine II, strolling about the beautiful gardens and pausing to eat their lunch of black bread and cheese.”
Early in her career, Helen worked in the print departments of the Findlay Galleries in Kansas City, and also in Chicago, where her brother Wally had opened a gallery. She often traveled to New York in the early 1930s, at times staying for several months. During the interludes when Helen was in Kansas City, she hosted gatherings and was involved in local society. She was also in demand as a public speaker.
Helen joined the Junior League of Kansas City, Missouri, and served as its president in 1935. Her lasting contribution to the Junior League was the creation of an arts program to teach schoolchildren about the joys of art. It began on the local level, with students visiting The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and later was replicated throughout the country. In June, 1936, she moved to New York to become the head of the national Junior League Arts and Interests committee. Helen traveled extensively as part of her work.
By 1942, Helen was employed with the National Recreational Association, and then, in 1943, she joined the Chicago branch of the Findlay Galleries. Kansas City had been the original home of the Findlay Galleries, but the business here closed just as the 1950s began.
Helen served as the director of the Wally Findlay Galleries in Chicago and as treasurer of Wally Findlay Galleries International, which had its headquarters in Chicago, with offshoots in New York, Palm Beach, and Paris, France. During her years in Chicago, her club memberships included the Chicago Women’s Club, the Friends of Art, and l’Alliance Francaise, in addition to the Junior League and the Vassar Club.
Helen’s accomplishments did not go unheralded. In 1959, the Municipal Art League of Chicago named her the Woman of the Year. A 1965 newspaper article spotlighted her Gold Coast apartment, which featured artwork by Jean Dufy and Bernard Buffet. Readers were encouraged to follow her advice, such as “Miss Findlay recommends for small dining rooms a grouping of paintings by a single artist, similarly framed and placed over a drop-leaf or extension table.” Helen received the key to Kansas City while visiting her hometown in 1976. Governor James R. Thompson of Illinois declared that December 16, 1980 was Helen Findlay Day, a nod to her involvement in the arts and her philanthropy and skill as a fundraiser. Helen died in September 1992 at the age of 83.
The Findlay Galleries still exist. In fact, after a period of years when each was known by the individual owner’s name, they are again the Findlay Galleries.
For further reading:
- Marcereau DeGalan, Aimee. “The Collecting of French Painting in Kansas City.” nelson-atkins.org/fpc/collecting-in-kc.
- “Findlay Galleries: Histories.” findlaygalleries.com/history.
Also featured in the September 4, 2021 issue of The Independent
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